How The Mirror Makers came about – and why I write historical fiction
Extract from talk given at Exeter University
There are three questions I’m sometimes asked about the writing of The Mirror Makers. One: what sparked off the idea? Two: did you have to do a lot of research? And Three: why choose a historical subject rather than a contemporary theme?
I have always been fascinated by mirrors. I’m not sure if the fascination began with reading Alice Through the Looking Glass, and imagining a world behind the silver glass over the fireplace, but mirrors have been a recurring theme in my fiction. What would we do without them? They affirm our sense of identity, they allow us to see ourselves as we appear to others. From the earliest time, when he gazed into a pool of water, man has sought to know himself through his image. Later, Renaissance men and women would carry pocket mirrors around as an indispensable accessory, to the censure of the church, which foresaw the danger of men worshipping their own image rather than that of God. Mirrors can also betray – revealing a mirrored expression or gesture which, unknown to the reflected person, is observed. Mirrors are spies.
There is always a seed – an idea, image or incident – which is retained in the mind for years before something causes it to germinate. As well as the concept of mirrors, there was in the back of my mind an image of a chateau on a lake in the remote and superstitious region of La Brenne, which I visited some years ago, where Athenais de Montespan stayed at one time. An aristocrat, with a primitive, peasant belief in magic, she was for years one of the most powerful women at court, as mistress to the Sun King, until she fell from grace after being implicated in a scandal of witchcraft, known as the Affair of Poisons.
The novel began to take a clearer shape in my mind after I read of a little known episode, the stealing by the French of the secret of mirror-making from Venice. It was a clever and ruthless piece of industrial espionage, initiated by Louis XIV’s minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. In 1665, he enticed a group of mirror makers from Murano to come to Paris and make mirrors for the King. The Venetian republic, in response, played every dirty trick they could to sabotage the Paris mirror factory, but their monopoly was broken, and so eventually the Hall of Mirrors came to be created, the piece de resistance of Versailles.
Only a man with the self-belief of Louis would have persisted in building the world’s greatest palace on such an unpromising site. He surmounted obstacles like the absence of water to propel the fountains. In one year alone 3 million hornbeam saplings were planted to create the hedges, and 2 million plants were kept in pots to vary the design of the gardens. Louis bent Nature to his way. And while work was going on at Versailles, he conducted military campaigns against neighbouring countries.
Louis was the Sun around which France revolved. Courtiers from the most influential families waited upon him at table. The best artists, architects and garden designers were scooped up by his insatiable need to build. The greatest writers and musicians provided the court’s entertainment. Lives were made and unmade by him.
I began to think about what it would have been like to have been subject to an absolute monarch. What it would have been like for the privileged few, like his mistress, Athenais de Montespan, who in her volatile moods, jealousy and reliance on the alternative medicine of the day, was both dangerous and vulnerable. What it would have been like for the artists and workers catering to Louis’s whims, such as the fountain maker who has to find water from nowhere for the hundreds of jets that are required for the gardens. Or the mirror maker risking his health in using toxic mercury to provide a perfect image for the King. Or the maid, aware of more primitive currents underlying the baroque gilding as she strips the linen from the bed. . . .
For the enchanted island conjured up by the Sun King at Versailles harboured serpents, and the corruption at the heart of the court eventually endangered even his life. Known as the Affair of the Poisons, the trail of suspicion and guilt eventually led as close to the King as it was possible to get.
My research into and around the subject of the Sun King’s obsession with mirrors, and the artificial world he created around him, began to feed the novel. It is important to know your subject as if you yourself had been there, to understand the background of people living at that time, what they would have been aware of, their living memories and their inherited memories. I read diaries of the time, particularly those of Mme de Sevigne and Liselotte, Duchesse d’Orleans, biographies of Louis XIV, of Colbert, of Mme de Montespan, several books on the building of Versailles, books about the qualities of mirrors, the history of glassmaking, and most important for the visual element, a study of 17th century Paris
Naturally, I went to Paris, Versailles, and also to Murano. It’s a question of getting a feel for a place, even though it may have changed over the centuries. Versailles, for instance, which most people imagine is much as it was when the Sun King ruled, was altered over the years by the restlessness of Louis and his heirs. Several sites which feature in the novel no longer exist.At the same time, it’s important that research doesn’t overwhelm the imagination. Historical novels should wear their research lightly. But the research you have done before imagination takes over means there’s an unconscious thread of truth that runs through the fiction.
Writers in past centuries took more liberties with important historical characters. There’s Schiller, for instance, engineering a fictional confrontation between Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart, when we know that Elizabeth had made sure the two of them never met. Shakespeare twisted the facts about Macbeth, who was quite a good King, in contrast to Duncan. In both plays, the drama was enhanced by fiction. And Alexandre Dumas, though ensuring the accurate detail of his novels set in the 17th century, was cavalier about twisting historical fact. The Man in the Iron Mask, with the imposter Louis XIV imprisoning his elder twin brother in an iron mask, and reigning in his stead, is a case in point.
Why historical rather than contemporary? is the third question. I don’t see historical fiction as being unrelated to contemporary life, for history is refracted through our present day consciousness, and we reflect our present in the past. The more I learnt about the style of the Sun King’s government, the more I saw reflections of today. We understand what Louis meant when he confessed in his old age to having been too concerned with the glory of his image, of having built too much, and gone to war too much. We can see analogies with today in his determination to control Nature. We can see his self-belief burgeoning into delusion, as he believed himself to be the Sun around which France revolved. We can see that in his search for perfection at any price, his need to create an enchanted island in Versailles, to live an extravagant dream, he was sowing the seeds for the revolution that would be the death of the monarchy. It’s this common thread running through the human psyche, affected by the times in which we live, but revealing, through the ages, the same ability to love and to deceive, to hate and to intrigue, to be selfish and to be self-sacrificing that bring the past straight into the present – and into yourself.
© Clare Colvin
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